I think ‘Sing another song boys’ is Leonard Cohen’s comedy version of Auld Lang Syne!
The Auld Lang Syne song is traditionally accompanied by people joining hands in friendship as they look forward to the New Year ahead. They pledge that whatever changes life may bring that old friends will not be forgotten.
The song includes the question of whether we should forget old friends.
There is a tension in this. Some friendships last, and some do not. The traditional song puts pressure on people to hold onto these friends, and also to drink! Both could be extremely unhealthy, but the song glosses over this.
I think Cohen explores the dark comedy of Auld Lang Syne.
Here is Tony Blair. He has to awkwardly cross his arms across his chest. One hand is holding his wife’s hand, and the other holds the Queen of England’s hand. This is how people pose when they sing the traditional song.
There is something psychologically confusing about this, because normally we use the closest hand to the person to hold theirs with. The song is supremely powerful – politicians of all parties must conform with the tradition of the song, or be considered outsiders of society. This happens all over the world.
On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, men wore their uniforms again and sang Auld Lang Syne. This shows that the power of the song crosses the boundaries of life and death. It says ‘should we forget our old friends?’ – and so in this context we know that the soldiers remember their old friends who passed away in the war, their old friends who have passed away since then, and the old friends who are still with them.
Here are the prime ministers of Cambodia and India, the sultan of Brunei, and the president of Indonesia. They hold hands in this way too.
It is a global tradition and Cohen chooses to subvert it.
Whilst Cohen was writing the songs, Monty Python had just started to take off. They divided opinion by discarding the traditional rules of television comedy.
I think in this song Cohen discards the traditional rules of Auld Langs Syne. During the tradition people hold hands with good friends, but also with strangers, opposing political leaders, and personal enemies.
As adults we can suppress our dislike of this, so that the group can form a unified whole. Leonard Cohen laughs at this.
The song begins like a Monty Python sketch. As people gather to hold hands for Auld Langs Syne
‘Ah his fingernails, I see they’re broken,’
The song should be about universal friendliness, but Cohen draws attention to the physical. He doesn’t say ‘I don’t like this person’ but rather draws attention to their physical imperfections.
It is easier to do this than to explain the complex reasons that we dislike being near someone. Like Heat magazine, this sort of hating, does oddly unite people. If the physical imperfection is something everyone can see, then it is a type of hating that everyone can readily access.
However in the context of the traditions of Auld Langs Syne, you could imagine that the other people would be appalled and offended that Cohen is focusing on his neighbour’s broken fingernails! He won’t get away with that one easily! Heat Magazine might buy the photo, but their editor will not talk about it during the New Year celebrations.
Another way to escape interacting with people is to pretend that we have something that we urgently need to attend to. Lily Allen avoids demands in ‘Knock ’em out’ by saying ‘Nah I’ve gotta go cos my house is on fire!’
The man with the broken fingernails lets Cohen know that the feeling is quite mutual. He doesn’t like Cohen either so he, like Lily Allen avoids demands by informing Cohen that –
‘His ships they’re all on fire.’ !
Another tension in Auld Lang Syne is sexual tension.
‘The moneylender’s lovely little daughter
Ah, she’s eaten, she’s eaten with desire.’
The song forces everyone to hold hands. A sex pest takes this opportunity to make physical contact with a young woman. Normally he would be unable to do this, especially because he owes her father a lot of money. He cannot have the moneylender cross with him for two reasons!
However during Auld Lang Syne, he can flirt with the girl by squeezing her hand, and nobody will even notice. Everyone does this in the singing of Auld Langs Syne and so from the crowds perspective it is not a flirtation. However the girl might suspect something from his sweaty grip, and the manic lust in his eye!
‘She spies him through the glasses
From the pawnshops of her wicked father.’
The mention of glasses, also suggests the song is about Auld Lang Syne. We raise the glasses up to eye level as we toast our neighbours and colleagues. The girl resents having to have her hand griped by the sex pest. Normally she could complain to her father about the unwanted attentions of his client. However everyone is lost in the power of the song. This makes her feel out of place, and cast out, she finds herself not in the pub at all. She is back in the pawnshop, feeling that she is another second hand item to be sold for the sake of the business.
Auld Lang Syne is used to strengthen the bonds of business partners. It is a multipurpose song about humans connecting, and this is it’s strength as well as its danger.
‘She hails him with a microphone
That some poor singer, just like me, had to leave her.’
She wants to escape the grip of the sex pest. If she was out on the town, she could hail a taxi to escape. As she is in a pub, she hails her father with a microphone.
Everyone has complete focus only on the song, so if she wants get her fathers attention, she has to wave a microphone. He will see the microphone because it is related to the music – so it helps her to become visible. With Monty Python humour again, Cohen feels sorry for the singer, whom she stole the microphone from! Now the singer himself is caught up in the chaos of the scene, which is perhaps why the song ends with the drunken crowd singing without a professional singer to guide them.
‘She tempts him with a clarinet,
She waves a Nazi dagger.’
Her plan did not work. Her father is still focused on the song and not her. She decides to try to make herself more visible. This time she steals something bigger.
She takes a clarinet from the same unfortunate musician, and waves it as she once waved the microphone. The musician is really feeling picked on now!
She is so angry about having to hold hands with the sex pest. She imagines the clarinet is a Nazi dagger. This shows how angry she feels about her father conformity and loyalty to Auld Lang Syne. She thinks he is a Nazi. If he is a fan only of the music she has to wave a microphone, or a clarinet. She discovers that he is only a fan of a Nazi-like conformity to the crowd. By the same logic, as a Nazi fan, he will only pay attention to Nazi things. She thinks the only way to make herself visible now, is to wave a Nazi dagger. If it were a non Nazi dagger, her ‘wicked father’ probably wouldn’t see it, and therefore her. She is trying to become visible. She hopes that if he can see her then he will be able to protect her from the unwanted attention of his client.
‘She finds him lying in a heap;
She wants to be his woman.’
Now the wife of the drunken sex pest finds him lying on the floor of the pub. She had noticed his advances on the young woman. She wants him to refocus on her again, but at this point in the party he is far too drunk.
‘He says, ‘Yes, I might go to sleep
But kindly leave, leave the future,
Leave it open.’ ‘
He says he is extremely tired, but asks her not to be offended by this. He does want a future with her, but is too drunk to have a proper discussion about the relationship and his conduct. He possibly owes money to other people in the pub, which also suggests he is a problem drinker.
This first verse outlines the debate of whether old friends should be forgotten.
Why should a girl have to put up with the attention of a sex pest, even if he has been her father’s client for many years?
Why should the wife of the sex pest disown him, for once flirting with a girl in a pub?
Why should a father ignore his daughter, just because he has a business to run?
What matters more conforming to the group and glossing over poor relationships, or making your individual voice heard at all costs?
The answers are unclear, and so Leonard Cohen suggests that Auld Lang Syne is a comforting song only sometimes, but lacks a unified wisdom. We can try to smooth over relationships all the time, but eventually this collapses. Some unity is important, especially in the storms of life. It reminds me of Fawlty Towers.
‘His hand upon his leather belt now
like it was the wheel of some big ocean liner.’
‘And she will learn to touch herself so well
as all the sails burn down like paper.’
He also mentions a ‘cigarillo’ which is a short, narrow cigar. It is designed to be burnt for pleasure – like a comedian with a short fuse. This also links to the following song about Jon of Arc a heroic woman who was burnt/consumed by the fire/man. Chain smoking is constant smoking – so perhaps
‘And he has lit the chain
Of his famous cigarillo.’
means that it is a cigar which can be smoked endlessly – like a sketch show can be played repeatedly. The short fuse never reaches its end.
Auld Lang Syn is a firework of a song, which we utilise to fill up the dark voids between our relationships, but the pleasures it offers are superficial and short lived. Leonard Cohen reminds us that life is always chaotic, despite all human efforts to organise and control it.
He concludes with –
‘Lets leave these lovers wondering
Why they cannot have each other,’
Sometimes people need time apart to work out what is important to them. Auld Lang Syn noticeably avoids confronting this issue, and so Leonard Cohen makes it the final focus of his own song. Life is always chaotic and people do need space.
So as we begin 2015 let’s celebrate comedy because it has the true power to connect people. Auld Lang Syn’s traditions are a comfort in the depths of winter, but we need comedy all year round to truly illuminate our souls!
The next song is ‘Joan of Arc’.
This is one of Leonard Cohen’s most popular songs.
He hosted a BBC radio show and said this about the song –
‘So I’ve been very happy with some of the imagery, but a lot of the imagery… The tune I think is good, I remember my mother approving of it, I remember playing the tune for her, in her kitchen, and her perking up her ears while she was doing something else and saying ‘that’s a nice tune’.’
Radio gives him the opportunity to appear to be just chatting about the song. However I think that this little observation, can tell us something important about the lyrics. ‘Nice’ can mean slight or subtle as well as pleasant. It is an understated word with a double meaning, which suits the song well.
People relate strongly to the song, but they don’t know why. Many people have tried to intellectually assess the relationships the song suggests, but perhaps these efforts actually move them closer away from the songs truth.
Leonard Cohen deliberately uses very sparse and evocative brushstrokes. He has made no effort to clarify if Jane is his wife, or if he is friends with the man/woman he writes to. I am reminded of the way Kurt Cobain’s songwriting reached so many people, but mostly they couldn’t explain what the songs meant. It was the lack of explanation, which made the songs strong.
‘And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind’
Kurt Cobain was very inspired by Cohen. It is difficult understand the narrative of ‘Smells like teen spirit’, but it is designed to feel lost, nonspecific and obscured. I think ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is in some ways a similar sort of song. Cohen has avoided talking about the song. Kurt Cobain normally was similarly evasive saying he thought his lyrics were ‘unimportant’. People who knew him personally could see that was untrue and that everything was very carefully constructed and edited.
Kurt Cobain broke this facade once saying the lyrics were –
‘A big pile of contradictions. They’re split down the middle between very sincere opinions that I have and sarcastic opinions and feelings that I have and sarcastic and hopeful, humorous rebuttals toward cliche bohemian ideals that have been exhausted for years.’
I think ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is a mash up of lots of different poetic ideas, and that the contradictions within it are very deliberate and in fact form the personality of the song. After a complex love triangle spins outwards into the void, what are we all left with? A ghost of self who clutches at the many fragments as it tries to reform!
And who is there to complain to? She isn’t his wife anymore, but he is glad she was happy with the other man – but now they are all alone.
She is with him, but not with any of them. If we look the song as representing one man’s internal personalities, it could mean that he is detached from his own feminine principle. He sees the feminine in his house, and surroundings but is disconnected from it.
‘She sends her regards’ If Jane represents his own disconnected femininity then it is oddly formal. The song explores the difficulty of writing an emotional letter, only using the masculine principle.
I think the song is about the masculine and feminine principle within Cohen, and his difficulty in finding any cohesion between them, after the collapse of a ghostly love triangle of thought.
The tree is inflexible and the wind is strong, but neither break. They both exist separately. He has detached himself, and although he is alone, he enjoys being self contained. It is more gentle on his mind.
In the first stanza the time is precise and specific and his voice speaks with a seriousness and authority. The normal way to write a letter would be to say ‘Hope you are feeling better.’ However this questioning would be of the feminine principle. It is yielding, soft and gentle like the flexible movement of a tree – and for this reason it has been omitted.
The lyrics themselves convey a rigid masculine principle –
‘I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better.’
‘I’m writing’ is definite and factual. The words ‘you now’ are very specific. Actually the meaning would be perfectly conveyed without these two words, but he wants to be very clear about who he is speaking to, and properly acknowledge the precise moment of writing.
The word ‘just’ makes it seem like its a small thing to write – which again suggests a masculine principle uncomfortable with reaching out, but feeling it is something necessary to do. It makes the sentence a little less formal, but without being too yielding for him.
Also the word ‘just’ helps with the atmosphere of ambivalence.
Then the phrase ‘to see if your better’ is the most formal and impersonal way of checking up on someone. Saying ‘How are you?’ would be just too yielding for him at this vulnerable time. He gets around it, by sort of saying ‘I am doing this, to achieve this’. He is like a doctor with a new patient. He wants to know that they are okay, but also maintains a professional distance.
He doesn’t want to be hurt. He has had to end his romantic relationship with his wife, and feels that he can be broken easily. That is why he adopts this unusual writing style. The song explores this idea further by making sure everything is loosely pinned down with his observations. It is like the masculine principle trying to invent a feminine way of being, because it has lost the femininity it once danced with. He struggles to express things because he has lost the deeper connection with her/it.
This is especially expressed in the phrase ‘Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder.’
Blue is a colour strongly associated with sadness. We can even say someone is feeling blue. It is difficult for the masculine principle alone to talk of sadness.
First he disclaims the sadness ‘Your’ – it belongs to the other. Then he makes it stronger – it is famous. It means something to a lot of people. It is in focus and in the spotlight – again masculine ideas. A raincoat is made of an unyielding fabric. It is protective and practical, especially in a rainy city like New York. Without it he would have to yield to the elements. This is not something you can imagine the speaker doing, without having a nervous breakdown. It is against his nature.
The raincoat allows him to keep his masculine strength. He is like a knight in armour – or, he was until the ghostly love triangle messed with his mind.
Now there is a fault in his strength. The coat has a rip in it. A rip in the bottom lining of the coat would not matter so much – but this coat has a rip in the worse place.
Tearing is an act of the masculine principle and an act of uncompromising strength – however the effect is that this action allows the feminine principle of the rain to leak under the coat and make it fail at it’s job of keeping the wearer dry.
The womb is also meant to protect the being it encloses. When her baby was aborted it lost it’s protective shell. When the couple broke up his protective shell was also lost, or rendered impractical. Though the rain has not reached him, he feels he will soon be at the mercy of the elements. He is writing the letter whilst he still feels well enough to.
Words which could be of a more feminine nature – ‘like’ and ‘music’ are surrounded by words and ideas with a very strong masculine principle.
‘New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening.’
They are blended further with Cohen’s very deep tone of voice. This creates a dramatic tension. We get a sense that he is not the kind of character who normally talks about his own pleasure.
This suggests that the speaker feels that the man/woman he writes to cares about him. He wants to offer reassurance that he is doing okay. However it is difficult to do this without sounding somehow yielding. In a minimal way, he speaks positively about his home and his city. He hopes this is enough to make the other man/woman not worry about him.
Social reciprocity is powerful and can be a contributing factor to any addictive behaviour. From what he says, it is implied that they wanted to hear how he was. Similarly he wants to know how they are too. He must not sound yielding, but must find out if they are okay. Again he speaks in absolutes and specifics, and avoids vague questions of emotional well-being.
‘I hear that you’re building your little house deep in the desert
You’re living for nothing now, I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.’
There is a dark sense of humour about living for nothing, and keeping a record. I think he is in communication with a lost part of himself. He hopes that though his creative output, the lost part of himself will bring it’s voice forward. He speaks directly to it, saying he hopes it will work with him. At the time of writing the song, music was being played mostly on vinyl records – so this word also directly links to his personal but physical creative output. There is a great tension between the ghostly nature of the music itself, and the physical production of the records. In his state it feels safer for him to talk about the music in it’s physical form.
A recipient reading the letter would get a very different interpretation of it. The true emotional depth of the song is in the contrast between the words themselves, and the depth of emotion with which Cohen delivers them.
As a listener to his internal thoughts as he writes the letter we are the only ones he communicates well with. The reader of the letter will have a completely different interpretation. There is a sadness in this. He wishes to communicate, and we know he is trying hard and is very sincere. However we don’t know how well the reader will guess his mood. We don’t know if the reader will understand what he is trying to say. As listeners we don’t understand, but this is natural because we are not who the letter is intended for. If the recipient knows him very well, it is possible they will understand perfectly. However from the letter itself the depth of their connection is made deliberately unclear. We find ourselves in the strange position of being between Cohen and the person he writes to. If anyone can act as a mediator then it is us, the listener. However we don’t understand enough, to do this. We want to help him convey his message, but are powerless to do so. I think this has humbling effect on his audience, especially when the song is performed live.
The next song is ‘Sing Another Song, Boys’.